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Historic Southern Maryland
Maryland’s three most southern counties, while nearby the bustling Washington, D.C., and Annapolis metropolises, have a character all their own. This is where Maryland was born almost four centuries ago.
From that time this region – comprised of Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert Counties – has borne witness to many significant historical events, including the state’s first permanent English settlement, slave uprisings and inventions like the skipjack, which shaped the nation’s fisheries industry. It even has a fascinating connection to President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Charles County, the westernmost of the three counties, is considered the gateway to historic southern Maryland. One of its best-known attractions is the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd house in Waldorf.
It was here that a simple country doctor treated a man with a broken leg one April morning in 1865. The man was John Wilkes Booth, who was injured as he fled Ford’s Theater after shooting President Lincoln. Mudd, who didn’t know his patient’s identity, was imprisoned for helping Booth, though was later pardoned. He’s buried at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church cemetery in nearby Bryantown.
While in Waldorf, visit the American Indian Cultural Center and Piscataway Indian Museum for an introduction to local Native American history. Then head towards Port Tobacco, stopping en route in La Plata at the African-American Heritage House Museum (call first for seasonal hours), which provides an insight into the lives as well as the contributions of African-Americans in southern Maryland for the past 350 years.
Port Tobacco, originally a Native American settlement, was resettled in 1634 by English colonists. It was Maryland’s second largest river port until the end of the Revolutionary War and the county seat until 1895.
Learn its fascinating history with a tour of the Port Tobacco one-room schoolhouse, built in 1876, and the courtroom in the reconstructed 1892 Port Tobacco courthouse. The latter contains displays about the tobacco trade and archaeological artifacts found in the area.
At the Thomas Stone National Historic Site just up the road, visitors are invited to explore Haberdeventure, the tidewater plantation once owned by one of four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. The colonial mansion built in the early 1770s was restored in recent years by the National Park Service.
Smallwood Retreat House, another historic plantation house, can be found in Smallwood State Park in Marbury. General William Smallwood, Maryland’s fourth governor and later a state senator, called this home. Be sure to visit the barn to view exhibits on the tobacco industry, including how this cash crop was grown and harvested. The Mattawoman Creek Art Center also is located in the 630-acre state park.
If you travel in the area in spring, stop by a tobacco warehouse for the unique opportunity to watch last year’s crop being auctioned. Three of the state’s six warehouses are in Charles County.
If you are interested in historic architecture, visit the county’s many historic churches, among the oldest in the country. Two of the original buildings at the Mount Carmel Monastery, begun by Carmelite nuns in 1790, are open to the public. Or visit St. Thomas Manor and St. Ignacious Catholic Church in Chapel Point, reputed to be the oldest U.S. parish in continuous service.
Charles County also is a hotspot for birding, with a great blue heron rookery and Maryland’s second largest population of American bald eagles.
Visit the Chicamuxen Wildlife Management Area at Indian Head, the site of a Civil War encampment, or the Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area in La Plata, known for its barred owls. Hunt for shark’s teeth and fossils on Purse State Park beach in Indian Head.
Popes Creek, where John Wilkes Booth escaped across the Potomac, today is best known for its crab houses, where you can feast on regional cuisine, including Maryland’s famous crab cakes.
For your sweet tooth, try Walls Bakery Wigwam in Waldorf, which bills itself as the “world’s most unusual bakery” for its tepee-shaped building. Its chocolate eclairs are a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
St. Mary’s County
While Charles County may be the gateway, St. Mary’s County is Maryland’s oldest county. In 1634 two ships, the Ark and the Dove, left England with 140 passengers to start a new colony. The group landed on an island in the Potomac River which they called St. Clement’s Island after the patron saint of mariners. Today it is a state park with hiking trails and interpretive signage as well as a monument to these first settlers. You can catch a water taxi to the island daily from Memorial Day through early October, weather permitting.
At the St. Clement’s Island-Potomac River Museum on the mainland, read Father Andrew White’s account of their dangerous sea voyage and learn about the New World land grant that brought them here. Other displays focus on crabbing, oystering and the local fishing industry. There’s also an authentic Potomac River fishing dory from the early 1900s and a one-room schoolhouse built around 1820 and used until the 1960s.
Step aboard a replica of the Dove at Historic St. Mary’s City, a living history museum on the site of the state’s colonial capital. Chat with docents dressed as 17th-century English colonists as they go about their lives in their new home. Learn about tobacco farming, the Piscataway Indians’ relationship with the colonists, and politics – the latter through a tour of the reconstructed State House of 1676. Or visit one of the active archaeological digs at this National Historic Landmark.
Take a 20-minute drive north to Sotterley Plantation, an early 18th-century tidewater plantation on the Patuxent River, to tour the elegant manor house – unusual for its post-in-ground construction – and visit a customs warehouse, period gardens, plantation schoolhouse, smokehouse and original slave cabin.
Combine a visit to Sotterley Plantation with a stop at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Museum, where you can find out about the naval-aviation research and test facility established in the area during World War II.
Continue onto Cecil Mill's Historic District, an early industrial district which still has some of its original architecture. The old mill was built as a cotton and textiles factory and is now a place for craftspeople to sell handmade crafts and art.
The Piney Point Lighthouse Museum has a collection of historic workboats, including a bugeye and a skipjack, along with an exhibit on the watermen who made their living from the Potomac. You'll also hear about the nearby lighthouse, built in 1836, and the U-1105, a German stealth submarine captured in World War II.
Get a firsthand look at a skip-jack on a natural history and environmental education cruise with Captain Jack Russell on the Dee of St. Mary's. Captain Jack runs the Chesapeake Bay Field Lab out of an old oyster-shucking house near Piney Point and also hosts “Cruisin’ Crab Feasts” aboard the Dee from April to November.
Visit the Old Jail Museum or Tudor Hall, a stunning example of colonial architecture with a hanging staircase and other unusual features. The county also has a thriving Amish and Mennonite population in the Charlotte Hall-Mechanicsville and Loveville areas.
Be sure to taste St. Mary’s County stuffed ham, a regional specialty. Although theories abound as to its origin, the most popular attributes this dish to area slaves. When given the less desirable parts of the hog for their meal, they stuffed them with kale, cabbage and onions from their meager gardens to improve the taste.
From St. Mary’s County head over the Thomas Johnson Bridge to Solomons in Calvert County. One of this county’s treasures is the Calvert Marine Museum, which features exhibits on maritime history, fossils and estuarine biology, including touch tanks and aquariums – and two very playful river otters.
The museum complex includes a collection of traditional Chesapeake Bay boats, among them a Smith Island crab scape. Or tour the museum's Drum Point Lighthouse, a rare example of a screwpile, cottage-style lighthouse.
Museum visitors can take a one-hour sightseeing cruise around Solomons Harbor and the Patuxent River on the William B. Tennison, an 1899 bugeye and former oyster buyboat, or visit the J.C. Lore Oyster House. The latter provides a historical look at commercial oystering, clamming and other sea-food harvesting. The museum also owns and offers tours to Cove Point Lighthouse, a working light.
Sightsee on the Solomons Island Trolley or tour the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. Stroll through Annmarie Garden, a 30-acre public outdoor sculpture garden in Dowell.
For outdoor enthusiasts Calvert Cliffs State Park offers good fossil hunting, fishing and birding. Follow the boardwalk trail through Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress. At Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard – which focuses on Chesapeake Bay region archaeology – you can tour archaeological sites, exhibits and restored farm buildings.
Stop at the Bayside History Museum, Chesapeake Bay Railroad Museum or Calvert Country Market, a year-round indoors market featuring locally produced meats and produce along with crafts, jewelry and antiques. Whatever your preference for fun, you’ll find it in southern Maryland.
Office of Tourism
P.O. Box 2150
La Plata, MD 20646
St. Mary’s County
Division of Tourism
23115 Leonard Hall Drive
Leonardtown, MD 20650
Fairview Information Center
8120 Southern Maryland Blvd.
14175 Solomons Island Road